Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (Read the whole passage)
Out of the darkness and into the furnace. Through the season of Lent so far we have gone with Jesus into the wilderness of temptation. We have come with Nicodemus in the darkness to ask our questions of faith that we wouldn’t dare ask in the light. And now we walk with the Samaritan woman to the well in the noonday heat.
This story from the John gospel isn’t quite as famous as John 3:16 was last week, but this season of Lent is not about hearing the obscure stories of scripture. It is about stories that we know and remember, stories we have heard many times in our lives… stories that make it into our literature and language.
Jesus is travelling today, outside the safety of Jewish lands, into Samaria. Not quite gentile territory, as Samaritans were also descended from the line of Abraham – like cousins to the Jews. But Samaritans worshipped differently than their Jewish cousins and therefore were found to be unclean by Jewish law.
Jesus and the disciples arrive in Sychar around noon, in the hottest and brightest time of the day. While the disciples go to find food, Jesus stops at the famous well of Jacob (the grandson of Abraham). As he sits, tired from his journey a Samaritan woman arrives to draw water. Now proper protocol would have been for the two to pretend like each other didn’t exist, but since when has Jesus cared about what is proper.
So he asks for a drink.
And the woman is shocked by this request.
She has come to the well to draw water alone, and likely never expected to encounter a Jew… and almost certainly would never think that this Jew would talk to her, a samaritan and a woman… Jesus would be forbidden by law to strike up a conversation. You might almost imagine the woman laughing with shock and nervousness.
Yet, Jesus persists.
“You really should be asking me for a drink. And I will give you living water,” he says.
And now the woman knows that this strange man at the well is nuts.
“This is Jacob’s well buddy, and you are just a strange guy lurking about,” she responds.
Yet, Jesus won’t give up.
“I will give you water that gushes up to eternal life.”
At this, this woman starts to know that something really is up with Jesus.
“Give me this water,” she says.
And then things get weird.
“Go and tell your husband and I will give you both water”, Jesus says.
“I have no husband,” she answers.
And then somehow Jesus knows that this woman has had five husbands. And the one she is now with is not her husband.
Now, in case we begin making assumptions about the virtue of this woman… let’s not forget that women in Jesus’ day were no different than property like land or animals. And so this woman likely was either widowed by her first husband or tossed to the curb. And her “husbands” after that were probably his brothers or cousins who were obliged by religious law to care for her. However, adding another mouth to feed is not simple. And she is passed into the care of one family after another. The last might be a very distant relative or even a wealthy gentile willing to care for this woman.
And these circumstances are not this woman’s fault, she has no control over these things. But despite this, being five time married still carries a stigma of being damaged goods. So this Samaritan woman comes to the well in the heat of the day, while all the other women come in the early morning and late evening when it is cool. And she comes alone, to avoid the gossip. She is living in open isolation.
This woman is probably not exactly someone we can identify with. While we have all had moments in life, where we have felt powerless in the face of the circumstances of our lives, where we have wanted to avoid everyone around us and their comments, or their whispers and stares… we probably are not quite as extreme in our life story as the Samaritan woman that Jesus speaks with at the well.
Yet, together as a community this woman’s story feels a little more like ours. As a church, either as Lutherans across Canada or our community right here, we may feel like half of ourselves is missing or gone. It might feel like we have been kicked to the curb, in favour of something better. And all those who were supposed to care about us, or care for us next, are turning their backs. And now we too are living in open isolation, it might feel like we go to the well in the middle of the day. Maybe the church is out in the light, but going to the water on our own while everyone else is busy at home.
When Jesus offers the Samaritan woman living water, it is meant as a contrast to the well water. Living water was understood by the ancients to be moving water, like streams or rivers or bubbling springs. And the movement was a sign of power, often of divine power. Yet, well water doesn’t move, it is dead water. The dead water of the well, in many ways symbolizes the woman. She is alive, but her life story and isolation could hardly be called living.
Yet, Jesus reaches out to this woman. First by asking for a drink, but then offering her Living Water. Living Water that begins to crack open the walls of this woman’s dead water.
“…the water that I will give them will never be thirsty”
“The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”
“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands”
“…for the Father seeks such as these to worship him”
And now this woman who was just on her way to get water at her ancestor Jacob’s well, whom Jesus has been talking to despite the fact that she is woman and a Samaritan, whom Jesus has been offering living water, the mercy of God, whom Jesus has accepted and not condemned despite the stigma of her life story, whom Jesus has said is exactly who God is seeking…
This woman whose water has been dead like well water, says,
“I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”
“I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
“I am he” Jesus says.
And the well walls burst open and life rushes back into this woman. She immediately runs back to her village, she runs back to the very people she has been trying to avoid…she runs to tell them her story, the one she has been trying to hide… she runs to bring them to Messiah. Her life is so broken open, so transformed by simply talking to Jesus at the well.
And so it is with us.
When we feel that we have been kicked to the curb, left by the people who were supposed to care for us next, ignored by a world too busy to see even see us out in the open daylight…
Jesus is reaching out to us. Reaching out into our lives when we feel like the Samaritan woman, and reaching out to a church that feels like our water is dead. And the living water of Jesus laps against our walls, forming cracks, weakening our supports, threatening to break us open.
And just at the moment when we will be certain that we are only alive but not living, just when all we think there is left is to go to the dead water well in isolation… Jesus will meet us and break us open.
Jesus will return us to community. In fact, Jesus is already doing this. Jesus is restoring us to a world that all that ignores us. And after a conversation with Jesus, we too, will find ourselves running out into the world, proclaiming that we have met the Messiah, telling our story, bringing our community to meet the Messiah
Jesus is doing all of this, with simple living water.